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Periplus is the Latinization of an ancient Greek word, περίπλους (periplous, contracted from periploos), literally "a sailing-around." Both segments, peri- and -plous, were independently productive: the ancient Greek speaker understood the word in its literal sense; however, it developed a few specialized meanings, one of which became a standard term in the ancient navigation of Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans.

A periplus was a manuscript document that listed, in order, the ports and coastal landmarks, with approximate intervening distances, that the captain of a vessel could expect to find along a shore.[1] It served the same purpose as the later Roman itinerarium of road stops; however, the Greek navigators added various notes, which if they were professional geographers (as many were) became part of their own additions to Greek geography. In that sense the periplus was a type of log.

The form of the periplus is at least as old as the earliest Greek historian, the Ionian Hecataeus of Miletus. The works of Herodotus and Thucydides contain passages that appear to have been based on periploi.[2]

Surviving periploi

Several examples of periploi have survived:

  • Pytheas of Massilia, (4th century BCE) On the Ocean (Περί του Ωκεανού), has not survived; only excerpts remain, quoted or paraphrased by later authors, notably in Avienus' Ora maritima.
  • The Periplus of Scymnus of Chios is dated to around 110 BCE.

Tactic of naval combat

A periplus was also an ancient naval manoeuvre in which attacking triremes would outflank or encircle the defenders in order to attack them in the rear.


  1. Kish, George (1978). A Source Book in Geography. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 21. ISBN 0674822706, ISBN 9780674822702. 
  2. Shahar, Yuval (2004). Josephus Geographicus: The Classical Context of Geography in Josephus. Mohr Siebeck. p. 40. ISBN 3161482565, ISBN 9783161482564. 

See also


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